Scottish artist Jenny Steele creates installations that reference 20th Century architecture, most recently coastal architecture and design from the period between the two world wars. Born in Edinburgh, she studied at the University of Dundee before completing her MFA at Goldsmiths, University of London.

Now based at Rogue Studios in Manchester, in 2018 she was one of 70 artists who received a share of over £65,000 as part of a-n’s Artist Bursaries awards.

This year a-n is offering 50+ bursaries of £500-£1,500, available to a-n Artist and Joint (Artist and Arts Organiser) members wishing to undertake self-determined professional development over the coming year. In the run up to the application deadline at 12 noon on 21 November, Steele spoke to Jack Hutchinson about the impact of receiving the bursary and the positive effect on her practice.

Why did you apply for an a-n Artist Bursary?
For me there was a lot more open scope with regards to what you could do. Obviously there was criteria that a-n was assessing applications on, but crucially it didn’t need to have public engagement outcomes. It was more about developing your own practice.

With regards to the other funding available to artists, a lot of it is geared towards a public outcome. The strength of the a-n Artist Bursaries is that they are geared towards where you want to take your practice. It makes it a key one for visual artists to apply for.

A lot of my work is focused on looking at architecture in particular places, which involves a lot of travel, which can be expensive. Also, most of my income comes from things that I make as an artist, so I live very frugally. I’m also not affiliated with a university, so I don’t have little pots of money that I can apply to for research. So the bursary was an opportunity to help with that.

I had been very lucky in one of the last rounds of ACE’s development grants, which allowed me to go to Miami, so the a-n bursary allowed me then to develop some of the contacts I had made, rather than the project dwindling out because I couldn’t afford to go back.

What did the a-n Artist Bursaries funded trip involve?
I went to America for 10 days for a project called ‘The Maiden Voyage’, which looked at the expansion of modernist architecture in the 1930s. In Miami there is the largest area of inter-war, Art Deco architecture, but my research revealed that it had originally started in New York.

I spent a lot of time on the trip looking at ‘power architecture’, like the Empire State Building and the America Media Building in central Manhattan. I also looked at more residential properties in Brooklyn and Staten Island, as well as old cinemas and libraries. I also undertook research at the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration, which is where trans-atlantic ships docked, and at the Museum of the City of New York.

The bursary also allowed me to spend time visiting galleries and seeing work that I had read about for years. I’d made as many contacts as I could in advance, so it was great to go and meet people in person. I also visited residency programmes, including the Women’s Studio Workshop in upstate New York, which was brilliant, and Art in General in Brooklyn.

What have been the long-term benefits of these connections?
I spoke to various residency coordinators about a potential exchange with Rogue Studios in Manchester. In addition, the Miami Design Preservation League has a museum on Miami beach and we are trying to arrange an exhibition of my work for next year or 2021. Although there is a lot of work to be done on that, everyone seemed quite keen.

The Georges Dock Plaza show was a direct result of your research. What did it involve?
The Maiden Voyage Installation was a site-specific installation at the Georges Dock building, which is a Grade II listed art deco building located close to Liverpool Docks, where transatlantic ocean liners once departed from.

The work takes inspiration from the spread of Art Deco modernist architecture across the transatlantic from the United Kingdom to New York during the 1930s, both through the transportation of people and the design and promotional advertising of 1930s transatlantic ocean liners themselves.

What is it that interests you about that period?
I find it really optimistic. A lot of architecture was designed to be quite uplifting with buildings like cinemas, libraries and seaside architecture built to improve people’s wellbeing. It was a way of dealing with the recent trauma.

Do you find modern architecture more negative?
When I look at places like Manchester we are surrounded by cranes and high-rise luxurious office and apartment blocks. But this isn’t necessarily a negative. A few years ago I went to a show by Toby Paterson at Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop featuring work made specifically for the seven Maggie’s Centres across Scotland. It was very sensitively done, featuring his drawings and sculpture, but also images of the architecture of the centres which are designed to create the best possible experience.

These are beautiful spaces designed to create the best possible experience for end of life patients. So, in that respect, I would say there are still some really positive buildings being designed.

You were born in Edinburgh, did a BA in Dundee, then an MA at Goldsmiths in London, and have now settled in Manchester. Can you explain more about your own journey?
Dundee is now very different to when I studied there in 2002. Back then it was almost pre-internet, which was kind of great because it felt quite isolating – it was almost just you and the library! We certainly didn’t have much access to physical examples of contemporary art.

Going to Goldsmiths was just a totally different experience. It was much more theoretical in that you could have a tutorial and then just go and see 10 examples of what you’d just been talking about. It was incredibly challenging, but amazing at the same time. It probably took a few years for everything I had learnt to sink in.

After that I really wanted to get into teaching in HE and FE, and I found it really hard to do in London. It was so expensive. I had a studio, but then just couldn’t afford it without working more. So I ended up just having a studio at home, and became increasingly frustrated with the situation.

It was down to economy really. I was so desperate to be in the studio, which I just couldn’t do in London in the financial situation I was in.

I’d visited Manchester and was involved in projects here that always had a really good feel about them. The artists I met here were working less (in terms of money earning day jobs), the studios were cheaper and it just seemed like a much better way of life. Manchester is becoming more expensive now, but it is still more manageable than London.

If you had one piece of advice to offer a bursary applicant what would it be?
I think I was successful on my fifth attempt, so it’s well worth persevering. I actually asked several people who had been successful for advice on how to tailor my application, and they suggested my previous ones hadn’t been detailed enough.

It’s important to include things that are concrete in your application, things that prove the project will happen. If lots of things still need to be resolved, it raises questions as to whether what you have proposed will actually happen.

Ultimately, I am so grateful that a-n offers its Artist Bursaries programme because it is genuinely unique. My advice is: if you have been rejected, don’t give up and try again!

a-n Artist Bursaries 2020 are open for application with 50+ bursaries of £500-£1,500 available to a-n Artist and Joint (Artist and Arts Organiser) members wishing to undertake self-determined professional development over the coming year.

Deadline for applications: 12 noon, Thursday 21 November 2019.

Need support in submitting your application? Read our Top tips on applying for a-n member opportunities guide.

a-n Artist Bursaries are open to current a-n Artist or Joint (Artist and Arts Organiser) members. Not yet a member? Find out more and Join a-n today

1. Jenny Steele, The Maiden Voyage, installation on George’s Dock Plaza, September 2019, Pier Head, Liverpool. Photo: Dave Barton

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